Jordaens at work. The complex restoration story of one of the masterpieces of the Maagdenhuis

Hélène Dubois, 22 September 2013

In 2010 the painting The Washing and Anointing of the Body of Christ from the Maagdenhuis in Antwerp was in very poor condition. Over the years it had acquired a badly discolored appearance and the paint layers were in a fragile state. There was an urgent need for research and restoration: the painting was transferred to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK) in Brussels, where it remained from 2010 to 2012. The technical and art-historical research as well as the restoration itself were led by Hélène Dubois, curator and conservator of paintings at the KIK, who gave this lecture on the project.

The painting is an early work by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Its complex origins can be divided into two phases. The original middle section dates from 1620-23. Around 1650 the painting was expanded on all four sides by the addition of strips of canvas. It was not until 1679 that the painting was transferred from Jordaens’s house to the Maagdenhuis, where it would remain permanently, serving as an altarpiece from 1691 onwards.

X-radiography and microscopic examination of paint samples provided a clear picture of the painting’s structure. The research also revealed new information on the painting’s genesis and confirmed its place within Jordaens’s studio practice. For instance, it became clear that the casual addition of strips of canvas was not uncommon in Jordaens’s work. The research also revealed that Jordaens himself painted over parts of the painting in later years – interventions that were sometimes thought to have been executed by another hand in the centuries that followed.